It all came together in a flurry and seemingly at the last minute, but on a warm Wednesday afternoon I found myself in the familiar surrounds of the International Terminal of San Francisco Airport and hopping on a long haul flight; Emirates Air to Delhi with a quick layover in Dubai. I was on my way to meet Gina along with our friends Becky and Kyle who have been in India for a week already...we were going to complete the final stretch of the trip we started back in May of 2011...we have 2 weeks in India and 2 weeks in Nepal before we officially hang up our backpacks and settle back in to "real life" in the Bay.
Nothing quite like arriving into a city as big and notoriously chaotic as Delhi at 3:30am, but that was precisely the time when I stumbled, bleary eyed, out into the taxi rank to negotiate with the type of unsavory fellows who man taxi stands at that hour. Predictably the first guy tried to pull the wool over my eyes by allegedly calling the hotel I was booked into and having a person on the other end of the line tell me the hotel was closed, that I could not stay at the hotel that night, but not to worry that I would automatically receive a refund for the room I had already paid for. Yeah, sure pal...luckily I had called and spoken to the guy at the hotel the day before I left and he'd assured me I was all good to check in late. I finally got a guy to drive me out to the Hotel and sure enough the host was waiting for me and confirmed that he had not received a call...meaning that whoever I had spoken to was just some shady a-hole trying to aid in my being fleeced by the d-bag at the taxi rank. In any case, the room was nice and, thankful to have avoided being scammed, I crashed out quickly...
Day 1 in Delhi and my first order of business was to decide between an Indian breakfast or "normal" breakfast...of course, I had to go for the Indian. It was a strange curd thingy with spicy pickled veggies and paratha (stuffed flat bread). Tasty, but far from amazing. Next,I organized a taxi into the city to the hotel the girls had reserved and where we were supposed to meet when their flight arrived that evening. The traffic to the original hotel at 4 am had been nonexistent; that was not the case at noon when I moved to the next hotel...Delhi was in full chaotic swing...it was small preview of what was to come.
Checked into the new digs at Hotel Rupam in the Karol Bagh neighborhood, I wandered out to the streets to see what there was to see. Quickly, I was approached by a young guy on a tuk-tuk who offered to take me to a more happening part of town and for cheap- "only 20 ruppees each way, my friend" (less than $0.50). I was skeptical, but he seemed like a nice enough kid so I hopped in and we tore off into the Delhi traffic. RP and I ended up hitting it off...eventually. But, before we got to that stage we had to play the little tourist/tout game; each assuming our prospective roles. He, the commission hungry tout eager to take me to an expensive shop where I'd drop my life savings and he'd get paid...and, me, well I was to be the sucker.
After the second store he took me to where I had for the second time not spent a dime we leveled with each other. I explained that I was much happier to pay him a fair price to drive me around and show me the city than to be driven to shop after shop for almost nothing where he hoped to be paid in commission from my purchases...and seeing as I wasn't buying anything that day...it'd probably end up being more lucrative for him too. He looked perplexed and then smiled a big toothy grin...and, all of the sudden, just like that, we were friends. The next few hours were spent dodging buses, pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws, and other tuk-tuks as RP expertly navigated me around the city showing me a number of interesting sites including the India Gate, the memorial where Gandhi was killed, a few famous statues and temples, among other sites. It was a fun afternoon and by the time RP dropped me off, he'd shown me pictures of his family, given me his card and we were beyond buddies...he was calling me his brother.
A few hours later I jumped into a car with the driver from the hotel to go with him out to the airport again to pick up Gina, Becky and Kyle. We found them as they wandered out of the arrivals terminal and after our joyful reunion we crunched into the little car and headed back to the hotel. It was Friday night rush hour and traffic was stop and go, at times, and madness... always. Still, we hadn't seen nothing yet. That night we had a ridiculously good Indian meal at a restaurant close to the hotel that my boy RP had suggested. It was the first of what would be a string of way too good dinners, where we ate way too much, and way too late in the evening. We rolled out of the restaurant and towards our beds like anacondas that had just eaten an antelope.
Day 2 in Delhi and our 1 day to take on the city. We considered hiring RP for the day, but then decided, after being advised by our hotel people, that we would instead try our hand at navigating the Delhi city metro out to one of the star attractions of the city: the Red Fort.
We headed off with hand written, detailed instructions from the hotel and eventually figured out buying a ticket (16 rupees) and even found the right platform to wait at for the right train headed in the right direction. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves until the train pulled up and we were herded onto the very, very crowded car. We all exchanged chuckles and looks as we found ourselves absolutely encompassed by locals many of whom either don't or won't wear deodorant. It was a trip, but thankfully it lasted only a short time until we transferred onto a much emptier train for the last few stops. We stumbled into an almost empty, nicely air conditioned and blessedly un-stinky car of the train thinking we had scored big time...and we had, well 3 of us had. We were in the "ladies only" car where all was calm, tranquil and civilized. I was quickly banished to the end of the next car to join the rest of men in the crammed and interestingly pungent normal car. The girls laughed and snapped photos at my misery.
We exited the train and walked through the most vile smelling train station I have ever encountered. It smelled like a dog had just crapped on your face...no joke. Even the locals were covering their faces and trying to hold back the dry heaves. We exited onto the streets and that's when it hit me most strongly, we were definitely in India...there was no doubt about it. People and color and sounds and movement and smells swirled around like a stew simmering in a humid heat. We moved, as if in a trace, down the streets towards the Red Fort completely encompassed within the frenetic pace of everyday life whirling around us...it was pretty wild.
Eventually we made our way into the Red Fort complex which we found as a reprieve from mayhem of life on the streets. We bought tickets, scored head sets and set off on our audio tour of the impressive Red Fort. The site itself was interesting: grand, beautiful, stately, very old, a snapshot of the lavish lives led by the richest back a few hundred years ago. We enjoyed the tour a lot.
The funniest part of the tour though was us realizing that we had achieved celebrity stature in India and without our even knowing it. To be fair, the beautiful ladies I was lucky enough to accompany were the real A listers...I was more like a low B or high C lister. Everywhere we went people were snapping photos of us. Sometimes, they would shyly ask to pose with us for photos and other times they would just grab us and hold us close while a friend snapped a photo. The people were always very gracious and thankful after these encounters...shaking our hands furiously and thanking us for the honor of taking a photo with us. But, the funniest people were the ones who thought they were slick with their camera phones and were snapping with reckless, papparazzi like abandon. Eventually we took to waving at them, as much to call them out as for a little laugh of our own. I have experienced this phenomenon in my travels a time or two, so it wasn't a complete shocker...but, definitely never, ever to this extent.
After we had had our fill of the Fort we headed out to explore the nearby bazaars and to hopefully score a little snack and a cold drink. Without much more then a cursory look over the map and general sense of what direction to head we dove head long back into the chaos of Old Delhi's streets. We wandered and wandered, constantly knocking back the persistent bicycle rickshaw drivers who offered us rides and trying to stay together in a tight pack. Every time I started to get a little nervous we would encounter a smiling, friendly face who would silently assure us we were OK and then vocally assure us we were headed in the right direction. The first was an old man who we bought icy Coca-Cola's off to wash down the spicy street food we had purchased next door: a flat bread paratha filled with onions, herbs and topped with a fiery hot chili pepper...for $0.20. Delicious! Our next encounter involved us getting hustled by a young kid slanging bananas...paying far more than we should have, but still only a matter of cents to us, so no big deal.
Eventually we came to the large mosque which we were headed for, and although it looked impressive from outside, we couldn't be bothered to pay the seemingly high price they were charging and decided to give it a miss.
Leaving that mosque we encountered the most persistent bicycle rickshaw drivers yet, who followed us and at times impeded our progress with their bikes, all the while yelling that we were headed into a dangerous neighborhood and to boot, in the wrong direction. Again, just as I started to get nervous a guy about my age appeared out of nowhere, asked if I was Australian and proceeded to gloat about the fact that India's cricket team was that day putting an ass-whipping on the Aussies. Then, with a smile, he said we were headed in the right direction and to make a right at the next block. The rickshaw drivers did NOT like this guy helping out their would be prey and gave him a yell as we finally ditched them and headed around the corner and into the Chawri Bazaar.
This strip reminded me of any other street market area you might encounter in SE Asia, or Latin America only on Steroids...Big, Barry Bonds steroids. The traffic that much louder, crazier and dangerous. The people that much denser...the smells that much more pungent and the speed of life that much faster. For the third time that afternoon, my growing nerves were put at ease when we stumbled upon a nice looking food stand and the first foreigner faces we had seen since leaving the fort...their accent gave them away as fellow Americans, when they told us we absolutely had to try the Lassi. And we did, along with a couple of freshy fried samosas...and they were, predictably...awesome.
After a ride back on the hectic metro and a well deserved few hours crashed in the cool Air Conditioned room we headed upstairs for a dinner in the rooftop restaurant. Indian food, again...and it was way too good, and we ate way too much. We headed for bed that night with full bellies and excitement for the next day's excursion to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal...